For two months this summer the only movies I watched were movies about the war on terror. While other moviegoers were enjoying cinematic treats like You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and The Happening, or the revival of Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, or that Norwegian movie about Norwegian yuppie writers that everybody liked so much, I was immersed in the backlog of global war-on-terror movies released since 2002. The only summer blockbuster I saw was Iron Man, a war-on-terror movie and therefore allowable.
I watched three dozen of these movies and maybe 15 percent of them were any good. The rest, like the war itself, represented an enormous waste of manpower and resources that would have been better spent on something good for people, like entertainment. When I say this I do not mean any disrespect to the three thousand men and women who died on September 11, 2001, or the over four thousand American soldiers who have died overseas, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed, or the unknown number of detainees who have been tortured in prisons. But watching these movies was like being buried under rubble while working in an office, like being stuck in the desert far from home, invaded by an occupying army, left tied in a stress position for days.
You ask why I put myself through this. Like some kid fresh out of high school sauntering into a recruitment center just to check it out, I wasn’t exactly coerced. I wasn’t drafted. A suggestion was made, I volunteered, I didn’t want to seem like a wuss. Here was the story of our time, they said, told cinematically. Wasn’t it my duty to cover it? It might be, I answered. So they signed me up, they put my name on a contract.
Fortunately for me, I cannot be stop-lossed. American soldiers continue to die in Iraq with no power to make it end, but I can simply file this report, turn my back on the cinematic quagmire and walk away. I know it’s unfair. It’s criminal. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned these past seven years, it’s that fairness has nothing to do with it.
The first Iraq war movie was Fort Apache, a western John Ford made in 1948. It was also the first Vietnam movie. A thinly veiled retelling of Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876, Fort Apache holds up the ordinary cavalry soldier, represented by John Wayne’s Captain York, against an oblivious commander, Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday, who foolishly leads his men to doom at the hands of Apache warriors. In Fort Apache, the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry do their duty, “riding the outposts of a nation,” as it says in another Ford western, while a commander who refuses to listen to his officers charges blindly into death.
Wayne’s York gives what amounts to a press conference after the defeat. He doesn’t lie to the assembled reporters who consider the dead Thursday a hero—we can’t picture John Wayne lying in a movie made in 1948—but he doesn’t tell the truth, either. What he does is let the reporters believe what they want to believe. The reporters don’t really listen to what York says, anyway. Instead, they tell him what happened in the battle, even though they weren’t there and he was. York’s response, a soliloquy about dead soldiers and the permanence of the US Army, delivered by John Wayne as he looks out a window, ends the film.
The Apaches carry Fort Apache’s moral weight, rejecting peace to fight with honor. The movie preserves the dignity of the US Army, however, which is portrayed as separate and apart from Thursday’s stupidity even as it’s subject to it. Ford shows Thursday was wrong; he shows how regular soldiers get killed. What makes the film tragic is that it doesn’t matter. In their victory the Apaches remain the enemy, in defeat Thursday remains a hero. After a while nobody remembers the dead soldiers’ names.